Record damages awarded to NSW employee for wrongful termination: what can we learn?

Eden Elliott - Friday, October 30, 2020

Case study prepared by WISE Workplace State Manager NSW, Tracey Bosnich 

Image: unfair dismissal

Most of us may believe that if a contract is not signed, it is not legally enforceable. On 10 September 2020, the NSW Supreme Court handed down a significant decision, awarding record damages to an employee for termination of employment and amongst other findings, providing grounds upon which an unsigned contract may be held to be legally enforceable and take precedent over a signed contract.

Background

Ms Melinda Roderick (“Roderick”), the Executive Director of Washington H. Soul Pattinson & Company Ltd (“WHSP”) had been employed since 2006,  when Roderick commenced in the role of Chief Financial Director. She was appointed as Finance Director in 2014, till 12 April 2018, when she was terminated without notice. More notably, Roderick was the only female on the Board and was the second most senior employee in the company.

On 10 September 2020, Roderick was awarded record damages in the amount of $1.105 million. The case was litigated on the issues of termination of employment without warning, failure to give reasonable notice of termination, and failure to pay both short term and long-term incentive entitlements.

Original Signed Contract v Unsigned Contract

Roderick's terms and conditions of employment were originally set out in the 2006 contract ("the original contract"). However, following Roderick becoming the Finance Director in 2014, a draft ‘new contract’ was made in 2015, but was never signed. WHSP argued the original contract prevailed. 

Roderick submitted that when she became the Finance Director, the original contract was discharged. The Court noted that there was a significant change in her role tasks, obligations and duties and that the original contract could not have appropriately been applied in the circumstances, especially where the original contract ‘did not contain a clause specifying that it would remain in force, even if the duties are altered’. It was noted that under the new contract Roderick's responsibilities had significantly increased, in that she became the director of 12 companies. 

Despite the new contract being unsigned, the Court found that the implied intention was for her original contract to be discharged and for the parties to be bound by the new contract. Therefore, the terms and conditions of the unsigned new contract were found to apply and took precedent over the signed 2006 contract.

Calculation of termination payment 

WHSP calculated Roderick’s termination payment based on the signed original contract. Accordingly, Roderick was only paid three months’ of her old salary, in lieu of notice, which was expressly stipulated as the notice period in the original contract.

Roderick’s claim for damages was made in accordance with the notice period expressly stipulated in the new unsigned 2015 contract, being 24 months; and for payment of an amount representing her incentive entitlements under both the long-term and short-term incentive plan and scheme, included in the new contract.

Key issues litigated with respect to damages

There were five issues litigated: whether the original 2006 contract containing the express term of three months' notice applied; if the new unsigned contract applied, what was the implied period of notice; the notice period Roderick should have actually been given; determination of whether Roderick was eligible for entitlements pursuant to the short term and long-term incentives; and the reason for her termination.

Implied Notice and Incentive Bonuses

WHSP argued the original contract provided an express term of a three-month notice period.  As they did not give three months' notice, WHSP paid Roderick an amount in lieu of the three months’ notice and therefore argued they were not in breach of contract.  Roderick argued she was entitled to 24 months’ notice in accordance with the unsigned 2015 contract.

Once the Court established that the original contract no longer applied, it had to determine, what the ‘implied reasonable notice term’ should be. The Supreme Court did not uphold the 24 months’ notice period in the new contract, but determined that Roderick was entitled to 12 months' notice.

Roderick argued the new contract entitled her to the incentives. WHSP argued it was not obliged to pay the incentives as payment was discretionary and dependent on performance, and that Roderick was terminated for ‘poor performance’,  had not worked the full year and was no longer employed. WHSP further submitted that Roderick was terminated prior to the assessment of these incentive benefits.

The Court stated any "decision as to payment is only discretionary in the sense of assessing [Roderick's] performance against the KPIs". The Court stipulated that was an implied contractual obligation to "exercise any discretion conformably with the purpose of the scheme and not to choose arbitrarily or capriciously or unreasonably to not pay money, irrespective of whether the agreed parameters had been achieved". The argument to not pay Roderick as the employment ended "only a matter of days before the end of the relevant financial year would be quite unreasonable and arbitrary".

Reason for termination

The termination letter stated that Roderick was "not the right fit". Roderick argued that she was terminated without explanation. WHSP then subsequently submitted during the litigation, that Roderick was actually terminated for “poor performance”.

The Court noted that it was a "curious feature" that there was not a single document noting an issue with Roderick's performance, including the termination letter itself. It did not accept that Roderick had performed poorly,  but more so "that it (WHSP) could do better in terms of value for its money" given that a day after terminating Roderick, WHSP hired a new CFO on a lower salary. Further, the new CFO had no position on the board and reported to the chief executive, which the Court noted "would have saved [WHSP] a considerable sum".

Key lessons

This case illustrates the following important points for employers:

  • employers should be aware of the terms of their employment contracts;
  • employers should ensure the contract is executed by all the parties;
  • where an employee’s role title, duties and obligations are changed, the Court will look into the ‘intention of the parties to be bound by that contract’ as well as any alteration of responsibilities and duties, to determine when there is a signed contract and an unsigned contract, which contract will apply.

The dangers of wrongful termination for employers are significant – in this case, to the tune of over a million dollars. Employers should always be cautious when ending employment contracts, particularly if the termination involves role changes, very senior employees, complaints, disputes, poor performance or particularly wrongdoing, to ensure termination processes are both compliant and procedurally fair. 

WISE Workplace offers consultancy support with HR and dispute resolution matters to assist employers in meeting these obligations.  If you are seeking advice on the proper way to resolve an internal workplace dispute, contact us today.

Substantive, Not Superficial: A Call to Improved Procedural Fairness

Natasha Kennedy-Read and Vince Scopelliti - Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The FWC recently found SA CARE’s dismissal of a casual disability care worker to be unfair and ordered compensation.

The employee in question was warned off tube-feeding clients due to her lack of certification. In response, she advised that she had been signed off on two appropriate training courses, had experience providing gastronomic care at another facility and had been approved by Disability SA. She believed she had been approved to provide that care.

Two days later, the employee was called without warning into a disciplinary meeting with HR where her lack of certification and other qualifications were discussed again.

The HR officer stepped out of the disciplinary meeting for five minutes.

On return, the officer handed the employee a summary dismissal letter which recorded that the employee had received an opportunity to respond to a serious misconduct allegation. the letter terminated her employment with immediate effect.

FWC’s Deputy President Anderson stated the “shocked” care worker was then “escorted off the premises in the knowledge and view of clients and staff, causing them further distress.”

FWC Findings

Ordinarily, an employee performing a medical procedure on a client, knowing they lacked the required certification would justify summary dismissal. Anderson acknowledges the care worker’s assumptions can be reasonably criticised, but also found that the “unique circumstances of this matter” with factors that significantly “mitigate the seriousness of the conduct.”

Anderson found the lack of notice and the timing of only 48 hours between the instruction and the disciplinary procedure to be harsh and unfair. The process also had only superficial procedural fairness, since the employee’s ability to respond was limited and she was not fully warned of the risks to her employment or afforded the right to support during the process.  Anderson also found that the urgent treatment of the matter was unnecessary. 

Anderson awarded the care worker four weeks compensation minus 25% for misconduct with SA CARE paying over $5830.74 in compensation. If you would like to read more about this case, please see: Chioma Okoye v SACARE Supported Acomodation and Care Services T/A SACARE [2020] FWC 704 (12 February 2020).

what can we learn from this case? 

Matters involving dismissal must be handled with utmost sensitivity, caution and procedural fairness even in matters of perceived urgency. There is often grey area in matters of misconduct that may seem black and white. To ensure you are best informed and equipped to handle these challenging circumstances, WISE offer expert third party HR services including training, investigations and reviews.

Unfair Dismissal: Case Studies from the FWC

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Perhaps one of the most vexed issues employers face is how to terminate employees without exposing the organisation to the risk of a successful unfair dismissal action. 

In light of the 15 January updates to the Fair Work Commission (FWC) Unfair Dismissals Benchbook, these two unfair dismissal cases at the FWC demonstrate the importance of employers being on safe legal ground before dismissing an employee. This is particularly important in circumstances where successful actions could result in a significant compensatory payment, or the employer being forced to re-hire a terminated staff member.  

1. The sleeping ferry master

In the decision of Sclater v Transdev Harbour City Ferries Pty Ltd [2019] FWC 7968, it was found that a ferry master who fell asleep during his shift had been appropriately terminated and not unfairly dismissed. 

In this matter, Mr Sclater was discovered to be asleep on a bench in the wheelhouse during the course of his shift travelling from the Pyrmont Bay Wharf to McMahons Point Wharf in Sydney. Instead of Mr Sclater, the ship’s engineer Mr Drygajlo was manning the helm. 

It was subsequently discovered that Mr Sclater, who was on numerous different types of medication due to a (disclosed and medically cleared) heart condition, had been taking a cough medicine for approximately a week. 

Despite warnings regarding potential drowsiness, Mr Sclater claimed not to have noticed that part of the label and had suffered no ill effects. However, on the date of Mr Sclater’s transgression, he had forgotten to take his heart medication but remembered to take the cough syrup. As a result, Mr Sclater suddenly felt extremely drowsy and sat down to “close his eyes”. By his own estimation, he was only unconscious for about five minutes.

The employer, Transdev, argued that Mr Sclater had both breached the company’s Drug and Alcohol Policy and had given dishonest evidence about whether he had in fact been asleep, and for how long. Although the FWC did not find any dishonesty in Mr Sclater’s evidence regarding how long he had been asleep, it was concluded that he had breached the relevant policy. 

This was because Mr Sclater: 

  • Did not obtain proper advice from the pharmacist about contraindications with his existing medicine and the cough syrup.
  • Exceeded the prescribed dosage of the cough medicine.
  • Did not read the information about the potential side effects. 

Ultimately, the FWC determined that, given Mr Sclater’s role as ferry master, there was no option but for him to remain fully alert at all times when on duty. His failure to do so in the circumstances meant that he had been validly dismissed.

2. Beers before work

By contrast, in the matter of Morcos v Serco Australia Pty Ltd [2019] FWC 7675, Mr Morcos was reinstated to his employment after being found to have been unfairly dismissed. 

Employed at the Villawood Detention Centre, Mr Morcos was on a rostered day off and had consumed two beers when he received a telephone call and was asked to come in for a shift. He agreed, believing that his blood alcohol concentration would have returned to 0.00 before his shift commenced. However, following a random alcohol test at work, Mr Morcos recorded two readings of 0.037 and 0.032. He was sent home (notably by driving his car!). 

Mr Morcos worked one further shift but was then terminated for breaches of the Drug and Alcohol Policy. 
The FWC found in Mr Morcos’ favour, however, noting that:

  • A blood alcohol reading between 0 and 0.005 could (and at that workplace previously had) result in a written warning and not an immediate termination. 
  • Mr Morcos had consumed a reasonable amount of alcohol on a rostered day off, believing that he would not be required to work after consuming the beers.
  • Mr Morcos was allowed to work the next day for an entire shift and was not subjected to alcohol testing on that occasion. 

The FWC therefore concluded that the nature of Mr Morcos’ alleged misconduct was not sufficiently serious to warrant termination. It ordered the employer to reinstate Mr Morcos to his former role. 

Employers, are you facing an unfair dismissal allegation? WISE investigators are experts in this field. They have years of experience in undertaking even the most complex workplace investigations, and are able to ensure your investigation is fair and legally sound. If your organisation needs assistance with a workplace investigation, WISE provides full as well as supported investigation services.

When a Pre-Determined View Leads to an Unfair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Thursday, October 31, 2019

Procedural fairness must be top of mind, for all organisations when conducting a workplace investigation. Failing to allow an employee sufficient time to respond to an allegation or taking a pre-determined view of the outcome of an investigation, for example, proceeding with terminating employment, can leave an employer open to an unfair dismissal claim. 

The importance of observing all elements of procedural fairness when conducting a workplace investigation is highlighted in the Fair Work Commission decision of Mark Andrawos v MyBudget Pty Ltd (U2018/2379). 

the facts of the matter 

The applicant, Mr Andrawos, commenced employment at MyBudget in July 2016. He came to his role, ultimately as a personal budget specialist, with a significant financial industry background, and was supported by tertiary qualifications. During his employment, he received numerous compliments, but was also informally and formally counselled for behaviour including "corner cutting", lateness and a failure to follow procedures correctly.

Mr Andrawos received a total of twelve informal warnings and eventually three written warnings for a variety of misdemeanours, including inappropriate comments made to a female client, resulting in a final written warning being issued. Despite having received the final warning, Mr Andrawos was subsequently involved in two further disciplinary processes. The first regarding his punctuality and the second related to inappropriate conduct with a female colleague.

Mr Andrawos then formed a friendship with a young man, Mr McBryde-Martin, which ultimately led to him providing financial recommendations as to what Mr McBryde-Martin should do with a sizeable inheritance he had received. Eventually, Mr Andrawos suggested that his friend come to MyBudget as a client, on a "friends and family" discount. Mr McBryde-Martin subsequently received financial advice and recommendations.

At one point, Mr Andrawos suggested that Mr McBryde-Martin transfer some $90,000 into a MyBudget account and offered to act as co-signatory. This upset Mr McBryde-Martin's mother (against a background where there was, although ultimately unfounded, some suggestion that Mr Andrawos had been drinking and gambling with Mr McBryde-Martin). His mother complained to MyBudget and Mr Andrawos was immediately escorted from the building and suspended. After some investigation, Mr Andrawos was dismissed from his employment. 

THE need for procedural fairness

The Fair Work Commission considered that Mr Andrawos' suspension and ultimately termination had occurred without sufficient procedural fairness.

Specifically, it was concluded, that he had not been afforded the opportunity to provide the necessary response and context to his employer.

Evidence supporting this conclusion included the fact that Mr Andrawos was initially given less than 24 hours to prepare a response to the allegation letter he had been issued.

Further, despite requesting statements provided by his colleagues, Mr Andrawos was denied access to this information and to the telephone call recordings with Mr McBryde-Martin, and the screenshots of text messages, which were being relied on by MyBudget as evidence in the disciplinary proceedings.

Taking a pre-determined view 

The Fair Work Commission was critical of the fact that there was evidence supporting the finding that a pre-determination had been made by the employer, before the investigative process has occurred. It was particularly noted that the employer appeared to be prepared to only undertake an investigation in form and not in substance - that is, that the employer had already decided to terminate Mr Andrawos. It was also held that Mr Andrawos was also prevented from putting forward his "defence" to his managers at an early stage, which reinforced the conclusion of the existence of a pre-determined outcome.

The evidence put forward to the Fair Work Commission suggested that a key decision-maker at MyBudget, had not been briefed with all relevant information prior to conducting a fact-finding interview, again critical in supporting a conclusion that a pre-determination had already been made. Moreover, no additional enquiries were made after the conclusion of the fact-finding process, most notably that no attempts were made by the employer to speak with Mr McBryde-Martin, regarding the nature of his mother's allegations. 

THE need for separation between investigator and decision-maker

The fact that the investigation was conducted internally at MyBudget by two people who ultimately were also the key decision-makers in the termination process, was criticised by the Fair Work Commission. This perceived conflict of interest tainted the investigation process and the termination decision and was directly related to the conclusion that, while Mr Andrawos' dismissal was neither unreasonable or unjust, it was deemed to be harsh. This highlights the importance of an investigative team, whether internal or external, collecting information and material on an objective basis, before providing it to the ultimate decision-makers for a determination.

This case demonstrates the importance of observing the elements of procedural fairness when investigating workplace matters. A former employee will likely be successful in an unfair dismissal claim, where an employer has entered the investigation process with a pre-determined view of the outcome. To assist your organisation with following a fair and reliable investigation process, WISE offers both training services and external investigation services

Police Involvement in Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, September 25, 2019

On occasion, police will become involved and/or need to be involved in the allegations from a workplace matter. In this situation, it's important for employers to know what their obligations are, and to be aware of some of the challenges that can arise. 

So, let's take a look at when police are or may need to be called in and what should happen once they are. 

WHAT matters require the police? 

Generally speaking, any allegation of a serious or potentially criminal nature necessitates the involvement of police. This includes allegations of physical assault, sexual assault, stalking, child abuse, significant fraud or theft. 

In the event that a complaint could have criminal implications, it is always a good idea to get the police involved as soon as possible. This helps ensure that any police investigation is not hampered by destroyed evidence, ongoing delays or similar interference. 

the employer's obligations

If police have become involved in a workplace matter, the police investigation takes precedence over the internal one. 

However, while the police investigation does take priority, an employer must still carry out an internal investigation. This is to afford the employee who is the subject of the investigation due process and procedural fairness. 

The internal investigation and a police investigation must both be treated entirely separately, but run in tandem. The internal investigation must be managed without impeding the police investigation. It is essential for the employer to communicate closely with police and provide assistance wherever required.

It is also important for an employer to remember that one of their paramount obligations is to provide a safe working environment for staff. This means that if there have been serious allegations such as physical or sexual abuse, the complainant and respondent must be separated in the workplace. Generally, staff against whom allegations have been made should be suspended on full pay, pending the outcome of the police investigation. 

the challenges involved 

It is likely that the police investigation will require the use of resources that would otherwise be engaged in conducting the internal investigation. For this reason, it can be difficult to actively investigate a workplace matter internally while the police are undertaking their own investigation. 

It can also be difficult for employers to balance the need to assist police with their legal obligations to their employees.

a case in point

This balancing act is demonstrated in the matter of Wong v Taitung Australia Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 7982. In this matter, Mr Wong, an employee who was accused of theft, named several other employees allegedly involved in a criminal enterprise. 

Police suggested that the employer not take disciplinary action in relation to the employees, in order to obtain and preserve the evidence against them. This meant that the employer permitted Mr Wong to continue working with no warnings, despite having sufficient evidence to conduct a summary dismissal.

The police were unable to obtain sufficient evidence to charge him, however he was ultimately terminated. However, the Fair Work Commission found that the summary dismissal of Mr Wong was unjust in the circumstances. 

The added factor of police involvement while undertaking internal workplace investigations presents unique challenges for employers. The balancing of police intervention into serious criminal allegations, with the strict employment principles and procedures, is both challenging and essential to ensure employers' actions are reasonable. WISE provides external investigation services as well as training in conducting investigations necessary to manage the workplace-police dynamic. 

Ruling on Anonymous Social Posts a Warning for Employees

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, August 21, 2019

In the highly-anticipated decision of Comcare v Banerji, the High Court has found it is not unconstitutional for the federal government to restrict the rights of public servants to express their political views in a public forum. 

So what does this decision mean for employees, freedom of political communication and the right to free speech? 

The facts of the matter

The respondent in Comcare v Banerji [2019] HCA 23, Ms Michaela Banerji, was employed by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship until September 2013. At this time, her employment was terminated for having breached the Australian Public Service's social media policy and code of conduct. 

Specifically, it was claimed that Ms Banerji had 'tweeted' several thousand posts under an anonymous handle. Those posts commented explicitly on the federal government; Australian immigration policy; ministers; opposition spokespeople and her specific department. 

Following her dismissal, Ms Banerji pursued a number of legal proceedings, claiming that her termination had breached her implied right to freedom of political communication. 

Ms Banerji was successful in her argument before the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, which held that the anonymity of her Twitter account meant that she could not be identified as a public servant and the policy of her employer had been applied too strictly. 

However, this decision of the AAT was ultimately overturned on appeal to the High Court.

the findings of the high court

In determining in favour of Ms Banerji's employer, the High Court explicitly found that, although the Australian Constitution provides a freedom of political communication, this 'is not a personal right of free speech'.

It was further concluded that, anonymous or not, the tweets threatened the 'integrity and reputation' of the Australian Public Service. Moreover, it was of relevance that Ms Banerji was a public servant, which would become topical if her anonymity was ever threatened.  

the wider implications of the case

As stated in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal's decision, placing such significant restrictions on - anonymous - public servants could be considered akin to dealing with 'thoughtcrime'. This means that society is imposing rules and punishments on people who have 'done nothing' other than have differing opinions. 

Ultimately, the decision means that employees, whether in the public or private spheres must carefully consider expressing opinions, be they political or otherwise, which differ from those of their employer. It is clearly unwise to post controversial personal opinions under a readily identifiable name, which could in turn identify and embarrass a worker's employer and lead to a conclusion that the opinions have caused damage to an employer's reputation for example. However, of some concern is the decision of the High Court in applying the Australian Public Service's standard and code of conduct requirements to anonymous tweets. 

This decision is particularly topical given the controversy over the recent legal proceedings involving Rugby Australia and Israel Folau, a devout Christian, 'cut and pasted' text on social media about homosexuality and hell. Given Folau's high profile as a rugby player, his employer Rugby Australia, terminated his employment. Folau is pursuing legal proceedings, arguing that his religious freedom has been interfered with as a result of his termination. 

Although the nature of the defence differs from that put forward by Ms Banerji, the ultimate concept is the same: private individuals are putting forward commentary on personal beliefs and opinions, but on a public forum, and are being penalised by losing their employment as a result. Rugby Australia maintains that Folau's breaches of conduct occurred repeatedly, and that he had been warned on several prior occasions about posting such commentary on social media. 

While it is not yet known what the outcome will be for Folau, it is clear that these cases have wide-ranging implications for organisations and employees. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations and the surrounding complexities of contemporary legal issues. If your organisation holds concerns regarding inappropriate social media use, WISE can conduct investigations and analysis of electronic evidence to establish defensible findings.

Social Media Misconduct: The Need for a Fair Investigation

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, June 19, 2019

An ever-increasing key dilemma for employers in the modern age is how to deal with the misconduct by staff through their use of social media platforms. 

The list of potentially offending conduct is lengthy. For example, staff might call in sick but then post details of their activities on social media. Employees could post inappropriate, defamatory or confidential information on their accounts. One high-profile example is the sacking of a PayPal executive in 2014 who publicly ranted about his co-workers on Twitter, or more recently the well publicised matter regarding Israel Folau and his instagram post. 

Given such a potential minefield, we look at what employers should do to ensure a fair investigation relating to allegations of social media misconduct.

procedural fairness key in australian case

The matter of Singh V Aerocare Flight Support Pty Ltd [2016] FWC 6186 highlights the importance of ensuring that an investigation is thorough and involves appropriate levels of procedural fairness. This requirement applies in social media misconduct, as in all other cases.

Mr Singh was dismissed from his role as a baggage handler in October 2015. Although the reasons for his dismissal were not made immediately clear to him, after proceedings had been issued in the Fair Work Commission, the employer alleged that Mr Singh had breached its social media policy by publicly supporting ISIS and known associates. 

It was also claimed that he had made radicalised comments against the Australian Government. Of particular relevance and concern was Mr Singh's status as an airline employee. 

Before he was terminated, Mr Singh was advised that there had been complaints involving his social media posts and that there would be an investigation. However, Commissioner Hunt found no evidence that Mr Singh was told he could bring a support person to the investigation meetings. Further, although the termination related to a number of posts on social media, Commissioner Hunt accepted that not all posts were shown to Mr Singh for his response. 

Factors in the decision

Relevant factors taken into account by the Commission in determining whether conduct occurring away from the workplace can invoke disciplinary action, include conduct that is: 

  • Likely to cause serious damage to the employer/employee relationship; or
  • Damaging to the employer's interests; or
  • Incompatible with the employee's duty as an employee. 

Before the Commission, Mr Singh's evidence was to the effect that he was against ISIS and radical Islam, and that his comments had been sarcastic. 

the outcome of the case

It was concluded that the employer had not spent sufficient time investigating whether or not Mr Singh was in fact opposed to ISIS. Commissioner Hunt accepted, that if there had been sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Mr Singh had a radicalised perspective on Islam, there would have been too great a risk for an employee with these views to continue working at the airport. 

However, it was determined that in the circumstances the employer should have gone to greater effort to investigate Mr Singh's Facebook newsfeed. If that had occurred, it was considered that it would have been clear that Mr Singh's claimed sarcasm was the true motivation behind his postings. 

Accordingly, the Commission determined that, if a proper investigation had taken place, it would have been apparent that Mr Singh was not radicalised. Therefore, Mr Singh's dismissal was deemed harsh, unjust and unreasonable. 

Instead of terminating his employment, it was considered that an appropriate disciplinary action commensurate with the misconduct would have been reiterating the social media policy of the employer and insisting that Mr Singh refrain from posting incendiary material.

need help in ensuring a fair investigation? 

This case demonstrates the importance of undertaking a thorough and considered investigation before taking serious disciplinary action. In unfair dismissal claims, the Commission will not hesitate to award judgments in favour of the applicant where it is determined that the employment was terminated in a manner that is not procedurally fair.

If you would like to ensure your investigation process is fair and enforceable, WISE Workplace provides investigation services, as well as 'conducting workplace investigations' training. 

Legal Professional Privilege and Workplace Investigations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, April 10, 2019

When a workplace investigation is required, there may occasionally be good reason to seek legal professional privilege regarding the findings. This is particularly the case in matters that may require criminal investigation, such as fraud, theft or sexual harassment. 

So, is it sufficient to engage a law firm when undertaking workplace investigation if you wish to attract legal professional privilege? We take a look at the what privilege means, and its role in investigations.

what exactly is legal professional privilege? 

The concept of legal professional privilege means that communications between an employer and their engaged lawyers are confidential and need not be disclosed, for example to another party or in a court, if the communications have been created for the 'dominant' purpose of providing legal advice or in anticipation of legal proceedings.  

What is the significance of legal professional privilege? 

In many circumstances, an employer's inner workings and thought processes may be something that is best kept private. Ultimately, the key purpose of legal professional privilege is to permit employers and other parties, such as external investigations, to freely discuss information with their solicitors in order to obtain legal advice, without being concerned that the material will form evidence in legal proceedings. 

Employers may wish to maintain privilege and keep parts of certain documents confidential if, for example, there are issues with disclosing identities of complainants or witnesses, or permitting potentially inflammatory or commercially sensitive information being disseminated through the workplace and beyond. 

how can workplace investigations attract legal professional privilege? 

If an organisation wishes to obtain privilege over communications, it is not sufficient simply to engage a law firm to undertake or oversee the workplace investigation. The law firm's engagement must be able to be demonstrated as being for the dominant purpose of preparing for imminent legal proceedings, or providing advice in relation to those proceedings.

This was demonstrated in the decision of Gaynor King [2018] FWC 6006, in which Commissioner Wilson determined that the engagement of law firm Minter Ellison to conduct an investigation, under the auspices of providing legal advice, was really an investigation into workplace conduct within the employer council's policies and procedures. Accordingly, it was determined that legal professional privilege did not exist in those circumstances.      

loss of privilege

Legal professional privilege can be easily lost or waived. This can occur if a party explicitly states that they waive privilege, or if they provide a document to another party which would ordinarily attract privilege. It is important to note that it is generally irrelevant if the information was intentionally or accidentally provided - once that has occurred, it is hard to argue that the privilege should be maintained. Further, if a party attempts to rely on the contents of a document, it is rare that privilege will be successfully kept over the document. 

This was the case in the decision of Bartolo v Doutta Galla Aged Services Ltd [2014] FCCA 1517, in which the employer attempted to rely on the contents of an investigation report but did not wish to disclose it. It was held that relying on a document without providing access to Mr Bartolo was unfair, and the document had to be produced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced across all steps of the investigation process, including legal professional privilege implications. If you are seeking a robust, defendable investigation, contact us today!      

The Legality of Recording Conversations

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, March 20, 2019

How many times have you wished you had a record of a conversation? Perhaps you would have liked evidence of what was said, or you would have appreciated being able to play a conversation back for training purposes. 

Whatever the reason, we examine the legality of recording conversations in Australia. 

when can you record a conversation?

The legality of recording a conversation in Australia depends entirely on the jurisdiction. Each state and territory has separate legislation which sets out the law on surveillance and listening devices. 

Residents of Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory may be concerned to learn that there is no legislation prohibiting the recording of a private conversation (as long as the person recording is involved in that conversation). By contrast, recording conversations without permission of all parties is prohibited in New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. 

Regardless of the jurisdiction, there is a prohibition on persons who are not party to a conversation, secretly recording or using a device to listen in on a conversation (with the exception of law enforcement). The obvious example here would be listening or recording devices being covertly installed in hotel rooms. 

what about recordings in the workplace? 

Conversations in the workplace come under the same legislation, which means whether or not it is legal to make a recording depends on jurisdiction. Covert recordings are against the law in New South Wales, Tasmania, Western Australia, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. But employers in Victoria, Queensland and the Northern Territory are permitted to record termination conversations, for example, without advising the employee that they are doing so. This recording can then be used to demonstrate that the employee was afforded due process prior to their termination. 

It is also legal for an employee in these states to record a conversation they are having with a colleague. However, it is important to note that, even though the recording of such a conversation may not necessarily be a criminal act, it is certainly frowned upon in the workplace. 

This was highlighted in the Fair Work Commission decision of Tawanda Gadzikwa v Australian Government Department of Human Services [2018] FWC 4878

In that decision, Mr Gadzikwa took a period of unpaid sick leave arising from a mental health condition. After a certain time, that leave was deemed to be unauthorised, and he was ultimately dismissed for non-performance of duties. 

During the course of the hearings, Mr Gadzikwa (who worked in Victoria) admitted that he had developed a practice of secretly recording conversations with his colleagues. While it is relevant that this practice did not form part of the employer's motivation in terminating Mr Gadzikwa's employment, the employer did submit that this was an inappropriate practice, regardless of Mr Gadzikwa's contention that he recorded conversations 'to protect himself'. 

Deputy President Colman criticised Mr Gadzikwa for his actions in doing so, noting that secret recordings are 'unfair to those who are being secretly recorded'. Ultimately, in the absence of any decent justification for recording the conversations, Deputy President Colman determined that Mr Gadzikwa's actions in doing so effectively diluted points in his favour which would have suggested that he had been inappropriately terminated.

covert recordings inadvisable at work

The warning contained in this decision is clear: everybody in the workplace, whether employer or employee, should be aware that even if it is not illegal to secretly record colleagues, bosses, or staff members, it is considered inappropriate, and may have negative ramifications in any dismissal or similar proceedings. If an individual has formed the view that a recording of a conversation is appropriate and necessary, the other participants should be advised in advance that the conversation is to be recorded, so that any objections can be voiced. 

WISE Workplace is highly experienced at conducting investigations into allegations of workplace misconduct and the surrounding legal issues. If you are looking for assistance to help navigate the challenging and complex issues of workplace misconduct, contact WISE today.

Learning HR Lessons from Real World Cases

Vince Scopelliti - Wednesday, January 30, 2019

In recent years, there have been a number of cases heard in the Fair Work Commission and the courts which have resulted in important practical outcomes and learnings for employers, particularly in the area of workplace bullying. 

Let's take a look at some of these seminal cases.

volunteers can pursue bullying claims

The decision in Ryan v Returned & Services League of Australia (Queensland Branch) [2018] FWC 761 demonstrates that volunteers who are unpaid are entitled to pursue claims of bullying in the workplace. 

In this case, there was some dispute as to whether RSL Queensland, for which Mr Ryan volunteered, was a 'person conducting a business or undertaking' and a 'constitutionally covered business', within the meaning set out in the Work Health and Safety Act 2011

The commission ultimately determined that Mr Ryan was clearly a 'worker' within the meaning of the WHS Act, and held that the Pension Advocacy and Welfare Services (for which Mr Ryan worked, and which was under the aegis of RSL Queensland), was a constitutionally covered business at all relevant times when Mr Ryan was performing volunteer work. On this basis, it was found that Mr Ryan had sufficient standing to pursue a bullying complaint against RSL Queensland.

employer's failure to consider mental health

In Wearne v State of Victoria [2017] VSC 25, the Supreme Court of Victoria determined that an employer could be in breach of its duty to prevent injury to employees in circumstances where an employee complained of bullying and the employer failed to act on the complaints. 

Of particular significance for the court was the fact that the employee had advised her employer some years before she ceased work that she was suffering from occupational stress, was 'anxious about any ongoing contact' with former colleagues and experienced stress as a result. 

In particular, the court concluded that the worker's employers had 'lost sight of the goal of creating a workplace environment that was safe for the [worker's] mental state and minimised the risk of psychiatric injury'

Recommendation of workplace culture improvement plan

The Fair Work Commission determined in Sheikh v Civil Aviation Safety Authority & Ors [2016] FWC 7039 that while the specific circumstances of the employee's workplace did not support a finding of workplace bullying, there was sufficient evidence to suggest that some sort of remedial or consequential action was required. 

Accordingly, the employer was to design and implement a workplace culture improvement plan, which should focus on interpersonal relationship training, the introduction of a facilitated workshop regarding acceptable norms of behaviour, and the development of an appropriate and agreed work allocation protocol.

age discrimination 

A fairly significant compensatory award of $31,420 was awarded to the complainant in the NSW decision of McEvoy v Acorn Stairlifts Pty Ltd [2017] NSWCATAD 273, following his allegations that his employment had been terminated when he was aged 62, because the worker had 'a bad back, bad hearing and was too old'.   

Although the company denied the worker's allegations, the NSW Civil & Administrative Tribunal (NCAT) found that the evidence suggested that it was 'more probable than not' that the worker was treated less favourably than he would have been if he had been younger.

reasonable management actions vs workplace bullying

In Ms SB [2014] FWC 2104, the Fair Work Commission considered what factors should be taken into account when determining whether an action was bullying or 'reasonable management behaviour'. 

An objective assessment must be made having regard to the circumstances and knowledge of those involved at the time, including what led to the management action, what occurred while it was in progress and what happened subsequently. Having regard to these factors, the Commission determined on this occasion that there was not sufficient evidence to support a finding of workplace bullying. 

It can be difficult for employers to interpret the findings and application of decisions made by the Fair Work Commission and various courts throughout Australia. If you require assistance in conducting workplace investigations, and making sound defensible findings, contact WISE today.